Some years ago, during a national meeting of Catholic theologians, a group gathered to discuss John Paul II’s apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae. The Vatican and the bishops were evidently serious about enforcing its requirement that Catholic professors of theology in Catholic institutions have permission, a mandatum, to teach from their local bishop. One after another, the theologians rose to voice their indignation at the very idea that the Catholic Church had the right to pass any sort of judgment on their fitness to teach theology. One member of the panel, a priest and an accomplished theologian, observed that requiring Catholic theology professors to profess the teachings of the Catholic Church didn’t seem like all that much to ask. An angry murmuring buzz filled the room. Had there been rotten fruit at hand, the theologians would have pelted him with it.
It may be tempting to see this incident as one more piece of evidence that Catholic theology professors see their vocation as drumming up dissent rather than teaching their students how to think about the faith. That would be unfair. Those opposing the mandatum seemed to feel a genuinely distressing conflict between their vocation as Catholic theologians and what the Church was asking of them. Theology, they rightly assumed, is an intellectual enterprise, and theologians are intellectuals. Theology is by nature wissenschaft: an activity of rigorous critical reflection, a “science” in the broad sense of an activity for scholars trained in its distinctive requirements. Theologians must therefore be free to follow evidence and arguments wherever they lead, unencumbered by outside interference, especially the interference of those who—like most bishops—are not themselves intellectuals.
The disgruntled professors were quite right about theology as an intellectual undertaking, which by its very nature answers to evidence and argument. But what they offered was only a half-truth. Precisely as an intellectual, the theologian’s calling and task are from the Church, and so his responsibility is to the Church. The God about whom theology seeks knowledge is the God known to the Church, the God who has entrusted the most sublime truths about himself to fishermen and tentmakers, and to their successors down to this day. Theology exists to serve the Church, so the theologian must answer not only to evidence and argument, but to those divinely empowered to teach the truths of the faith authoritatively—for Catholics, the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter.
The intellectual and the ecclesial belong together. There is no need for the Christian theologian—or the Christian scholar of any sort—to choose one over the other. Playing the intellectual and ecclesial aspects of the theologian’s vocation against one another (from either side) isn’t to do Catholic theology better but to cease doing it at all.
Faith seeks understanding. It starts to become theology when it searches out reasons for the truth of what it believes. By seeking reasons, faith looks for light, for a clearer and more luminous apprehension of the truths about God that God has given us in faith, and of the radiant bonds that unite these truths of faith. Taking a cue from Thomas Aquinas, we could say that faith itself is already “a kind of participation by us in divine truth,” in God himself as first truth and measure of all truth, albeit a partial and imperfect participation under the conditions of this life. When faith is conceived in this way, theology becomes faith’s deliberate effort to intensify its present participation in the first truth by the light reasons provide—to make of what it has been taught by God nothing less than what Aquinas calls “a certain imprint of God’s own knowledge” in our own minds.
This demand for reasons is what makes theology a science and distinguishes theology from the divine gift of faith. Animated by the Holy Spirit, faith recognizes the voice of God in the teaching and proclamation of the Church, and believes what God says because God, who is the truth itself, says it. Yet faith also knows that no appeal to authority, even divine authority, yields understanding. Divine authority teaches us what is true about God, but not why it is true. Thomas Aquinas observes that the teacher of theology has not done his job when he has established, however correctly, what we are to believe on divine authority, ecclesially mediated. His task is to give reasons and thereby help the learner begin to see the light the teacher already sees, the light shining from the Christian mysteries themselves.
Every intellectual activity is responsible to a community, and not only to the ingenuity or insight of its individual practitioners. Academics in particular assume that the community to which intellectual enterprises answer is made up of those who practice the enterprise, for the most part found in universities. Whether physics, economics, or art history is practiced well or poorly, whether its results are true, false, or uncertain, is a matter for physicists, economists, and art historians to decide.
There are good reasons for this. As Aristotle observes, “the learner should be one who believes.” The learner must trust that what the teacher says is true, even if he cannot see why. The student does not simply accept what the teacher says because it embodies the teacher’s individual judgment. Rather, the learner assumes that the teacher’s judgment is warranted in the eyes of the whole scientific community to which the teacher also belongs. If she had a different teacher, she would learn the same thing.
Theology is a scientific discipline, which like all scientific disciplines must answer to a community. The community to which theologians finally answer is the Church. But the Church is made up mostly of those who are not intellectuals and who do not practice theology. How can this be?
The Church receives the faith theology seeks to understand, forms individuals in it (including theologians), and hands it on to them. The Church thus has the responsibility to determine what is and is not in accord with its faith, and must make judgments about whether its faith has been rightly understood in order to carry out this responsibility. This follows from the very nature of the Christian faith as a communally mediated system of belief and practice. The theologian’s responsibility to the Church is not a mere legal stipulation, part of the cost of doing business for theologians who belong to communities with a penchant for ecclesial discipline. Accepting the judgment of the Church belongs to the very nature of the theologian’s vocation, just as accepting the ways of the sea belongs to the vocation of the fisherman.
This may seem like an obvious non sequitur. Pulmonologists seek to understand the act of breathing and correct deficient cases of it, but no one would say that the community of breathers is competent to make a rigorous intellectual assessment of the act of breathing or to assess when pulmonology is well or poorly done.
Why should the community of Christian believers be thought competent to make a rigorous intellectual assessment of the act of believing and to judge when theology is well or poorly done? The chief reason lies in the disparity between the two cases. Neither the act of breathing nor what one breathes is communally mediated at all, but the act of believing and what one believes are. The science of pulmonology is communally mediated to individuals, but it is handed on by the community of pulmonologists, not the community of breathers. The parity here is not between the community of breathers and the community of believers, but between the community of pulmonologists and the community of believers. Each mediates a highly ramified system of beliefs and practices to individuals, and assesses their mastery of what the community aims to hand on. Precisely as an intellectual, the theologian answers to, and is rightly loyal to, what a decidedly mixed community of mostly non-intellectuals believes to be true.
To this understanding of the theologian’s ecclesial vocation it will be objected that the legitimate and necessary prophetic office of the theologian has been deliberately suppressed. Part of the theologian’s responsibility is to criticize the Church and so to change the Church for the better—to help make it more the community God intends it to be. Subjecting the theologian’s work to the judgment of the Church will guarantee that theology will simply reflect the status quo in the Church and preclude the possibility of theological reform of the Church.
Not at all. I assume that the theologian, like every human being, must speak and act in accordance with his conscience. This may bring the theologian into conflict with the Church. If, after open-minded critical reflection on the disputed matter—including self-critical reflection—the theologian still believes he is right and the Church is wrong, he not only may, but must, continue to hold the view which in good conscience he believes to be true.
That conscience bids us to follow its dictates does not mean that conscience is right. It is a well-established teaching of Catholic moral theology that we must act according to conscience, but our conscience can nonetheless lead us astray. We sin if we fail to follow our conscience, but heeding its voice is no guarantee of virtue. Thus the importance of having a well-formed conscience, a conscience formed by the teaching and the teachers Christ has given his Church. For the theologian to find himself in conflict with the Church over a matter of faith or morals thus involves the recognition that the Church is bound to regard his conscience as malformed, perhaps quite seriously so, depending on the gravity of the matter in dispute. Yet he must follow his conscience. This is clearly a painful, and perhaps agonizing, situation.
Whether the theologian appreciates the necessarily ecclesial nature of his enterprise will, however, be decisive for where he goes from there. It will deeply affect the character of the dissent to which he regards himself in conscience bound.
The theologian might respond by rejecting the very idea that the results of his critical reflection can be subject to the judgment of those who are not themselves intellectuals, or who are intellectuals of a lower caliber than himself. This refusal to let his faith be corrected by the faith of ordinary Christians often takes the form of an appeal to intellectual freedom and the legitimate plurality of theological views in the Church.
These are important values for both the Church and theology, but they are not absolute values. To suppose that reasoned faith ought in principle to trump simple faith, the faith of intellectuals to supersede the faith of the unwashed, is a failure to appreciate the necessarily ecclesial character of the theologian’s task. If explicit, it manifests a studied ingratitude, a refusal to recognize or accept that the theologian wholly owes to the Christian community the faith his reason seeks to understand.
There is a faithful dissent that genuinely builds up the Church, but also a false dissent that harms the Church. John Henry Newman captures false dissent with his characteristic stringency. “It goes against them to believe [the Church’s] doctrine . . . because, if so, they shall have to submit their minds to living men, who have not their own cultivation or depth of intellect.” He was speaking of the resistance of the educated class to Roman Catholic teaching, the acceptance of which would require cultured Englishmen to subject themselves to the religious judgment of uncouth Irish priests and bishops. But his point has broader application, not least to a good deal of self-styled “faithful dissent” among contemporary Catholic theologians.
What, though, of critical reason’s right to scrutinize Church teaching in order to arrive at a genuine understanding of the faith? The post-conciliar Church has insisted—not least in the teaching of John Paul II and Benedict XVI—that true faith must be rational. The theologian, therefore, evidently has the responsibility of criticizing Church teaching when it is out of step with the requirements of reason.
Faith and reason are not opposites, to be sure, but there is a definite and ordered relationship between them, just as there is between grace and nature. Faith perfects reason, by bringing reason to the goal it naturally seeks: to know, as fully as possible, the truth about God. It is not reason that perfects faith, any more than it is nature that perfects grace. If a theologian feels (allowing for different levels of assent appropriate to different sorts of teaching) a conflict between the contents of the faith and the deliverances of his reason, his reason needs to be brought into harmony with faith, and not the other way around. Reason in conflict with the teachings of the faith is reason no longer oriented toward its goal, and thus damaged reason, reason failing to live up to its own nature. That grace perfects nature means not only that faith brings reason to a goal it cannot attain under its own power, but that faith, by correcting wayward reason, heals the damage reason has inflicted on itself.
Natural reason is the “handmaid,” not the teacher and guide, of the faith that the individual receives from the teaching Church. Faith puts reason to work in its service, in order to attain a deeper apprehension of what the Church teaches and faith has received. All of reason’s products, philosophical, historical, social scientific, or otherwise, are meant to serve the teaching of the faith, as aids to faith’s own understanding. Since the critical capacities of natural reason minister to faith, and not the other way around, theology, precisely at its most intellectually rigorous and critical, is the servant, not the master, of the faith of the unwashed.
Thus the theologian, faced with a conflict between the teaching of the Church and his own conscience, should accept the right of the Church, inherent in her role as communal mediator of the Christian faith, to judge his teaching, even though his judges may not be his natural intellectual equals. To accept the right of the Church to reject one’s dissenting views does not necessarily mean that one gives them up. One can do that properly only if one comes to a change of mind accepted in good conscience. But it does mean that the theologian will not, publicly or privately, contest the right of the Church to reject his views, even though he counts this rejection as mistaken.
This is loyal dissent. When it happens, it is of a piece with the theologian’s deeper readiness to order his whole life out of love for Christ and his Church, to deny himself and follow Christ, come what may. This willingness to bear the cross is not, of course, a special calling of theologians. It belongs to the vocation of every Christian. By calling us to life in his Church, Christ bids every Christian to have an ecclesial appreciation of her or his vocation.
This the theologian shares with the nurse or physician who, even at great personal cost, refuses to have any hand in medical practices that assault the divinely given dignity of the human person. He shares it with the Catholic business owner willing to accept severe financial penalties rather than pay for services which she knows to be grave moral evils, but which her government labels as “health care.” He shares it with the writer who turns down jobs that pay money his family desperately needs rather than advance, by his work, a project his well-formed conscience knows to be wrong. The physician, business person, or writer who pays a steep price, financial or otherwise, for dissent from the culture of death is rightly unimpressed with the theologian who protests having to pay any price, even that of a merely verbal reprimand, for dissenting from the teaching of the Church.
Genuinely loyal dissent is rooted in the theologian’s appreciation of the ecclesial nature of his enterprise, which does not privilege the status of his own judgment. Loyal dissent accepts the discipline the Church may impose on it. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith rightly observed twenty years ago, in its Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, the theologian may find himself called to suffer on behalf of the truth. “For a loyal spirit, animated by love for the Church, such a situation [as ecclesial reproach of the theologian’s teaching] can certainly prove a difficult trial. It can be a call to suffer for the truth, in silence and prayer, but with the certainty, that if the truth really is at stake, it will ultimately prevail.”
The history of the Church over the last century or so offers some signal examples of theologians willing to accept this difficult trial. One was Yves Congar, who was to be among the most active and influential theologians at Vatican II. As his posthumously published diaries vividly reveal, he was deeply anguished over what he and others saw as the wholly unjust suppression of his theological views by Church authorities in the decade from the late 1940s to the late 1950s. But throughout this trial he remained true to his vows of obedience as a Dominican and as a priest, and made no public comment upon, let alone criticism of, the Church’s disciplinary actions, which included suspension from teaching and other public activities such as participation in ecumenical discussions. He would not even allow his diaries to be published until five years after his death, when all those involved in the preconciliar conflicts, he could safely assume, would have also departed this life.
The loyally dissenting theologian like Congar follows a path close to that of the scientist whose views are rejected by his intellectual community, but who remains convinced he is right. In that situation he will justifiably continue with his scientific work, hoping to prove to the guild that his conclusions are correct and his arguments sound. In the meantime, however, he will not denounce the judgment of the scientific community as an unwarranted intrusion upon his intellectual freedom. In fact he will see it, frustrating though it might be, as the necessary safeguard of his conclusions in the long run. If he is right, the scientific community will come to recognize the truth.
It belongs to the wonder of the truth that it can always make itself known to minds that seek it. The scientist disbelieved by his peers will therefore not try to combat their skepticism by seeking to gather an alternative community of scientists who agree with him, who will vote to further his views at the annual meeting of the guild, and so forth. He will keep doing his experiments. Even less should the theologian, who seeks a deeper knowledge of the truth that God himself is, think he needs to take the cause of the truth into his own hands, against the community which has taught him the truth about God in the first place. He should keep doing theology until he changes his mind or his views prevail.
The theologian’s willingness to accept the judgment and discipline of the Church even when he believes the Church to be mistaken—to suffer for the truth at the hands of the Church—surely demands a very high view of the Church. In this the theologian goes beyond even the conscientious scientist in his estimate of the community of teaching to which he belongs, and to whose judgment he submits his own. What sort of community—more pointedly, what actually existing community—is worthy, if we may put the matter this way, of that suffering for the truth to which the theologian may in conscience believe himself called?
It will have to be that community of which the words Newman puts on the lips of the dying Gerontius are true:
And I hold in veneration,
For the love of Him alone,
Holy Church, as His creation,
And her teachings, as His own.
Only a community that can’t forget the truth, however great the failures and errors of her individual members—including those in authority—can be relied upon to recognize the truth. In this sort of community, but only here, one can responsibly suffer for the truth. And if the Church really is what Newman succinctly describes, then she can rightly ask this of us, and we should be willing to accept it. Readiness to suffer for the truth, it has to be said, isn’t a virtue widely prized among theologians today. But it should be.
Bruce D. Marshall is Edward and Emma Lehman Professor of Christian Doctrine at the Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. A different and longer version of this essay appeared in a festschrift for Ralph Del Colle.
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